Everywhere on this low, flat droplet of land near the mouth of the Potomac, you can sense the water. The river is wide here, and even from within the pines or from behind a tall stand of marsh reeds, you're aware of its breezes, its colors, its smells.
At this time of year, the Potomac conveys a visceral message. The season is changing. The waters are warming. Spring, however recalcitrate, has arrived, sidling in with cold rains, warm sunshine and pale young leaves unfurled on the hardwoods. The time for the scraping of oysters has passed. It is time to begin snaring crabs.
I met two men here, watermen and neighbors, who make it their business to usher in the new season by crafting its gear. Mark Norris builds crab pots. "Shakey" Hughes forges tongs and nets. Starting in late winter, on the days too blowy to go out after oysters, and continuing through the dead time before the crabs come on strong, these two prepare the tools of their trade. Well before either man actually sees the first glistening crab of summer, he has pictured that crab, in his mind's eye, as an image of his labor.
I myself work with people who fish for data. They "retrieve" it, they "massage" it, they "reduce" it and they "analyze" it. In effect, they pull numbers out of thin air--for whoever decreed that every stray event on earth should harbor, like some mysterious inner essence, a set of "parameters?" I have trouble grasping the relationship between a man and his data. By contrast, it heartens me to watch Mark Norris shape and staple eight lengths of galvanized steel netting into a crab pot.
If Mark has precut his pieces, it takes him only five minutes to assemble a pot. By the time he begins working his own 250 pots later this month, he will have built 1,500 of the box-like chambered traps, selling them to a few loyal customers. One summer a few years back he didn't go crabbing at all. He and his wife Mary just built pots, almost 7,000 of them.
The bending, snipping and stapling can get monotonous. "I'd whole lots rather be on the river," Mark says. He is a soft-spoken man of 37 seasoned years, of strong build and patient manner.
Mark has lived on the island for about a dozen years. When he was laid off from a job on a dredge at the nearby Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship, he fixed up an old skiff and tried his luck with "a pair of sticks"--shaft tongs for oystering. Shakey Hughes helped teach him how to find the oysters.
Then summer came, leaving Mark with nothing to do. He found an old crab pot in the marsh and took it apart. And, as he explained, "By taking it apart, you know how it gets put together. You just go from there." He spent 2 1/2 hours piecing together his first pot. That summer he built 90.
Refinements came in time. A crab pot is a wondrous, deceptively simple-looking work of architecture--sturdy, symmetrical and transparent, every wall made of silvery wire mesh. A bait box in the center of the floor lures the crabs, who enter through "funnels"--small tunneled openings--in the side wall. The beasts find themselves in a lower chamber, where the roof, the "centerpiece" of the "church," is pierced with two slots. Ideally, the visitors should now swim upward, through the slots and into the upper chamber where they probably will remain, trapped until hauled skyward, hapless delectables for the table.
I watched Mark and Mary Norris make half a dozen pots. I gazed at the neat rows of them, piled three or four high out in the yard beside the cramped trailer that serves as a workshop. I studied the funnels--each one slightly flattened, it seemed, and curving slightly upward. I examined the centerpiece, a sort of swaybacked vault bisecting the box. When I asked Mark for his secrets, he pretended to be at a loss for words, smiling gently all the while.
Next door, Shakey--nobody calls him Joseph--was at his home-rigged forge, hammering flat the circular ends of a pair of crab tongs. Like burly old Hephaestus, the Greek smithy god, but on a somewhat less mythic scale--he works, after all, out of a garage--Shakey can make and repair almost anything. He and his partner, Jim Noble (a software man from nine to five), buy carbon steel at a salvage yard and proceed to heat it, shape it, weld it and pound it.
In addition to making crab tongs and dip nets, they weld crab pot bars--the square forms shaped from steel reinforcing rods that watermen use to weight their traps. During the winter, they make oyster-culling hammers. These are strange, eminently handy tools--part measuring stick (with little posts marking off the minimum legal size) and part pickax (with a weapon-like head for cleanly breaking spat from the larger oysters).
Shakey's artifacts have a simple grace that stems from the principle underlying all good vernacular design: the truth of function. Shakey, of course, wouldn't speak in such abstract terms. Musing on his varied career as welder, waterman, well driller and smith, he'll often account for himself by recalling his boyhood on a farm in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. "Farm boys," he said, "learn to be adaptable to whatever's around."
On this particular spring day, it was I who was around--a refugee from the land of data. Shakey gave me a pair of tongs and a culling hammer, refusing to hear my protestations.
"City people like to hang 'em on the wall," he said, amused by this waste. By his tone I knew that, generously, he didn't count me as city people.
Now, when I write, I heft the culling hammer between sentences. It seems to help me collect my thoughts.